It’s the most wonderful time of the NBA regular season.
With the trade deadline and All-Star Weekend on the horizon, this week, our panel of NBA reporters — Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman — takes a look at the Lakers‘ immediate future, an odd ejection in the Bay Area, and what to make of the new All-Star Draft.
1. How much does the Rui Hachimura trade move the needle for the Lakers? What did you take away from his Laker debut?
Rohlin: This was a very good trade for the Lakers. Hachimura, who is 6-foot-8, gives the Lakers some much-needed height at the wing position. And as Lakers coach Darvin Ham says, he can shoot from three places on the court — the block, mid-range and 3. What’s also encouraging is he’s only 24, so the Lakers can develop him into a stronger defender. I thought Hachimura looked good in his debut, finishing with 12 points and six rebounds in 22 minutes. I liked that he was unafraid to shoot, but he also didn’t force his game. There was a naturalness and seamlessness about the fit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he moves into the starting lineup soon.
Weitzman: I guess it depends on your definition of “moving the needle.” This was a nice deal for the Lakers. They didn’t give up anything of importance (some second round picks and an oft-injured guard who’s done nothing since arriving in L.A.), and in return, received a legitimate NBA player who boasts enough raw tools that he was drafted ninth overall in 2019. Hachimura has size and is a decent shooter (35.5% career from deep, though on low volume). He’ll help them. But let’s not overstate this. He’s a poor passer (1.4 assists per game for his career) and not exactly a lock-down defender.
What’s most interesting to me, though, is what this deal means for the Lakers going forward. Hachimura will be a restricted free agent this offseason and I think we can assume that the Lakers wouldn’t have dealt for him if they weren’t planning on bringing him back. The problem with that, however, is that Hachimura has what’s called a “cap hold” of $18.8 million — that’s how he’ll count against the salary cap even before the Lakers sign him to a new deal. That number would eat into the post-Russell Westbrook cap space we assumed the Lakers planned on using. Does that mean the Lakers plan on bringing Westbrook back? Or trading him and their two available first round picks prior to the trade deadline as a means of taking advantage of his large contract? Or, are they cool just letting him walk and seeing some of their cap space evaporate?
2. Anthony Davis, Brandon Ingram and Khris Middleton all returned from injury this week. Whose return will be the most impactful this season?
Rohlin: Anthony Davis, hands down. He was playing at an MVP level before the injury and if he can return to that level soon, the Lakers could skyrocket in the Western Conference standings considering LeBron James has been playing as though he were a decade younger. Davis looked good in his return against the Spurs. He acknowledged that he was a bit tentative at first after missing 20 games, but he quickly found his rhythm, leading the Lakers in points (21) and rebounds (12). Ham gave him an A+ for his performance. And I’d have to agree. After such a long absence, I thought he’d look much rustier. Here’s to guessing it won’t take long for him to shine again.
Weitzman: I’ll phrase this a different way: Middleton’s return is the most important. The Bucks, we all agree, are a title contender. But they’re not winning anything if their offense continues to rank in the league’s bottom five, like it does now. What’s the Bucks’ biggest issue? They can’t score in the half-court (they currently rank 24th in points per half court possession, according to Cleaning the Glass). Middleton, when healthy, is their best half-court creator. One of the reasons the Bucks were finally able to break through and win a title a couple of seasons ago was because they titled some of the offense away from Giannis to Middleton. Their only chance of winning another championship is if he’s on the court.
3. What did you make of Steph Curry’s ejection on Wednesday, after throwing his mouthpiece out of anger directed at Jordan Poole?
Rohlin: I like it when Curry shows a lot of emotion, but he obviously shouldn’t have thrown his mouthpiece after he thought Poole took an ill-advised 3 with just over a minute left against the Grizzlies. That earned him his third career ejection, including the regular season and the playoffs (his other two ejections also involved his mouthpiece). But, no harm, no foul. The Warriors pulled off the win after Poole made a reverse layup with 2.3 seconds left to give the Warriors a two-point lead. After the game, Poole jokingly tossed his mouthpiece when he saw Curry in the tunnel and then the teammates exchanged a hug. Curry very rarely loses it, but it was clear he really wanted to win this game, especially against a Memphis team that gets under the Warriors’ skin. Curry put the Warriors in a bad position by being tossed from the game. But he also could’ve lit a fire under them.
Weitzman: That he and his Warriors’ teammates aren’t exactly the biggest fans of Jordan Poole. Which, sure, I guess we already knew, thanks to Draymond, but Poole does seem to possess a special ability to grate on his teammates.
4. Ben Simmons is averaging 7.4 points this season, and has scored seven or fewer in 23 of his 32 appearances on the year. Is Simmons officially done as a star in the NBA?
Rohlin: It sure seems that way. After missing all of last season, there was so much hype about his return to the court this year. And it has been very underwhelming. If there were a time for him to step up his game, it would’ve been in recent weeks, following Kevin Durant suffering a sprained MCL earlier this month. But Simmons has been inconsistent. He showed glimmers of his old self in the third quarter of a recent game against the 76ers. But, by and large, the three-time All-Star who was the Nets’ chief return in last year’s James Harden trade, has really taken a step back in his career, which is a shame because he’s only 26.
Weitzman: Yeah, it’s over. I’m not saying his career is done or that he can’t still be an impactful player on the court, but this — his fear of attacking — has been going on long enough that we can no longer define it as a short-term issue. It’s like his basketball brain has been reprogrammed, and it no longer includes a belief in his ability to score. It’s incredible — and sad — that this story that I wrote two years ago after that loss to the Atlanta Hawks remains our current reality.
5. The NBA announced that the All-Star Draft will happen immediately prior to the game this season. Are you a fan of the new NBA All-Star Draft format?
Rohlin: I think it’ll be fun. This could add some heightened intrigue right before the game that could spill over onto the court in the form of light-hearted drama. There will be trash-talk. There will be taunting. It could be amusing. I always enjoy watching the team captains play GM and their comical exchanges and gamesmanship as they pick their teammates. Perhaps having the game immediately thereafter will make it even more interesting.
Weitzman: Hell yeah! Life rule: Almost everything is enhanced by a live draft. I cannot wait to see who’s the last man standing, and how he reacts.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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